"Your Friends & Neighbors," Neil LaBute's follow-up to his audacious debut, "In the Company of Men," continues his darkly comic exploration of misogyny and other ills as they inform the tangled web of relationships of a group of bright, endlessly loquacious urbanites.

“Your Friends & Neighbors,” Neil LaBute’s follow-up to his audacious debut, “In the Company of Men,” continues his darkly comic exploration of misogyny and other ills as they inform the tangled web of relationships of a group of bright, endlessly loquacious urbanites. What will prevent this contempo (im)morality tale from traveling beyond the indie milieu is not only the relentless unpleasantness of the male characters, but also the static quality of the writing and staging, which approximate a theatrical mode that lacks narrative momentum or dramatic excitement.

As he showed in his controversial first film, LaBute has a penchant for sharp dialogue and deft characterization but is less concerned with plot mechanics. In his universe, biting words, not actions, are the ultimate weapons in social interaction. Source of inspiration for LaBute’s work continues to be the plays and scripts of David Mamet — for this pic, Mamet’s one-act “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.” Like Mamet, LaBute’s approach is precise, stylized and detached, and he also follows Mamet the director in positioning his characters close to the camera, as if they were addressing the audience directly, without much depth of field — or air to breathe.

Though doubling the size of the ensemble (from a trio in the 1997 movie), new pic is as narrowly focused thematically as “Company of Men,” except that here the battlefield is the bedroom rather than the boardroom. In the new tale, the power games played by the six characters are motivated by sexual politics.

In the pre-credit sequence, a handsome man named Cary (Jason Patric), all sweaty from exercising, says dramatically, “I think you’re a great lay.” It turns out Cary is talking to his tape recorder, rehearsing lines that in no time will be used in a diversity of contexts with a variety of desirable women.

LaBute’s singular, incisive perspective is most clearly reflected in the very first sequence, a montage of couples in bed. The married Jerry (Ben Stiller) and Terri (Catherine Keener) are making love, but Terri is tired of his endless talk — “I don’t need the narration,” she angrily tells him. “This is not a travelogue.”

Cut to another married couple, Mary (Amy Brenneman) and Barry (Aaron Eckhart), who also experience sexual problems. Indeed, Barry later confides, “The best lay I ever had is myself. My wife is great, but she is not me.”

Jerry, a theater instructor, seems the most balanced of the men, but appearances deceive. When Jerry initiates an extramarital affair with Mary, he sets in motion a chain of events that affect all the other characters. Ensuing narrative centers on the intricate maneuvers of upscale urbanites that lead to deceit and betrayal of love and friendship. In due course, Terri falls for another woman, Cheri (Nastassja Kinski), who works in an art gallery. Incoherent ending finds the supposedly “sensitive” Mary making a senseless choice.

Schematically constructed to represent a cross-section of urban society, the characters, di-vided into an equal number of males and females, are types. One woman is a masochist, another is a married bisexual, and a third one is lesbian. The men, too, are archetypes: Jerry is the adulterer, always keeping secrets because he’s never honest with himself; Barry epitomizes the insecurities and inadequacies of a man who’s lost control of his life; and Cary is the sexually potent male for whom women are toys to be manipulated and played with.

Some of the interactions are sharply observed and imbued with dark humor, but ultimately, sheer cynicism takes over, giving the impression that LaBute consciously set out to shock — rather than involve — his viewers. The whole film feels too studied and calculated, including the symmetrical overture and finale: Pic begins and ends with series of bedroom scenes.

As writer and director, LaBute goes for mathematically precise but emotionally distancing effects, as is evident in a repetitive cycle of art gallery scenes, wherein all the characters engage in identical introductory dialogue. To tell his stories in a more visual and stimulating way, helmer needs to trust his camera.

A pro like Nancy Schreiber, who has splendidly lensed many indies, could have accomplished much more if LaBute were not so determined to unfold his yarn as a series of stilted theatrical tableaux.

Acting of the entire ensemble is solid. The most striking male performance comes from Eckhart (the dominant presence in “In the Company of Men”), who gained considerable weight and deglamorized his look to play the cuckolded hubby. Pic offers a stretch for Patric (also credited as a producer), who hasn’t been seen before in such a fierce, nasty portrayal; a number of his outrageous monologues don’t work out, however. Stiller acquits himself honorably in the film’s most difficult part.

Of the femmes, Keener is the most impressive, arguably due to the strength of her part, a bright woman who understands that her marriage isn’t working out and is determined to take full charge of her new life. Brenneman’s performance suffers from the contrived conception of a self-denigrating woman. The attractive Kinski is decent as a woman in control of her work but childish and insecure in personal matters.

In its cynically bitter and unappealing tone, “Your Friends & Neighbors” bears thematic resemblance to Mike Nichols’ “Carnal Knowledge”: The misogynistic, impotent men played by Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel in the 1971 picture are very much like LaBute’s modern males.

Your Friends & Neighbors

Production

A Gramercy Pictures release of a Polygram Filmed Entertainment presentation of a Propaganda Film/Fleece production. Produced by Steve Golin, Jason Patric. Executive producers, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Stephen Pevner. Co-producer, Philip Steuer. Directed, written by Neil LaBute.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Nancy Schreiber; editor, Joel Plotch; music, Metallica (songs performed by Apocalyptica); production designer, Charles Breen; set decorator, Jeffrey Kushon; costume designer, April Napier; sound (Dolby), Felipe Borrero; assistant director, Albert Cho; casting, Mali Finn. Reviewed at Polygram screening room, Beverly Hills, July 24, 1998. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN.

With

Mary - Amy Brenneman Barry - Aaron Eckhart Terri - Catherine Keener Cheri - Nastassja Kinski Cary - Jason Patric Jerry - Ben Stiller

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